Obituary: Benay Venuta

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"I have eyes for you to give you dirty looks. / I have words that do not come from children's books. / There's a trick with a knife I'm learning to do, / And ev'rything I've got belongs to you!"

Benay Venuta and Roy Bolger sang "Ev'rything I've Got" in Rodgers and Hart's last new Broadway show, By Jupiter (1942). Lorenz Hart had promised to write a number to show off Venuta's rafter- rocking voice. "And he did," she told Frederick Nolan for his recent biography of Hart. "He wrote 'Ev'rything I've Got' while we were in rehearsal, and it turned out to be one of the smash hits of the show."

Although born in San Francisco, Venuta was educated in Switzerland, returning to California to join the chorus line in the pre-feature stage shows at Grauman's Egyptian Theater, in Hollywood. After seven years in vaudeville and touring musicals, she made her Broadway debut in Anything Goes (1935), taking over from Ethel Merman, who became her lifelong friend and confidante.

Venuta's favourite non- musical role was in Clare Boothe's Kiss the Kiss Goodbye (1938), a play that was both a farce about Hollywood's search for an actress to play Scarlett O'Hara and an allegory on the rise of Fascism. She played Myra Stanhope, a fading dipso-nympho film actress, prepared to sleep with anyone to land the coveted Southern Belle role of Velvet O'Toole. "I was your first star!" she shouts at a movie mogul. "I made your studio!" He rasps back: "Yeah, and my whole studio made you!"

In By Jupiter, she played Hippolyta, the imperious queen of the Amazons. On the day the show opened, the nurse in charge of Venuta's 11-month-old daughter eloped with a sailor. A distraught Benay sought advice from her friend Ethel. "Tell the management to hire you a nurse or you're not going on tonight!" Merman replied. "Hell, you're playing a queen, aren't you? Use it!" The nurse was hired.

In Nellie Bly (1946), a Broadway musical starring William Gaxton and Victor Moore, Venuta stole the honours as an engagingly hard-boiled character called "Battle Annie", but the show was a flop. So were Hazel Flagg (1953) and Copper and Brass (1957), after which she decamped to Hollywood to appear with Jane Russell in The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown (1957). Venuta's first film had been Trail of '98 (1928). She also appeared in Kiki (1931), Repeat Performance (1947), I, Jane Doe (1948), Annie Get Your Gun (1950) and Call Me Mister (1951).

During the 31st year of their friendship, Venuta and Merman finally worked together in the 20th-anniversary revival of Annie Get Your Gun, in 1966. Ethel appeared in her original role of Annie Oakley and Benay was cast as Dolly Tate, the role she had played in the film version.

In 1980, when Frank Lazarus and I were in New York, helping to cast the Broadway production of our London musical A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine, we auditioned Venuta. My journal records that her entrance line was "10am? You want high Cs at 10am?!" None the less, she acceded to our request and belted out "Ev'rything I've Got" as if it were still 1942. After making appropriately enthusiastic noises, we started telling her about our show, but she stopped us with "Look, thanks for seeing me, but from what you've said I'm just too old a gal for a show like yours. I'm pushing 70, you know. Like my pal Merman - I just don't want to work that hard any more. Besides, my real racket's art these days."

At an exhibition in New York a few years earlier her plexiglass sculptures had sold well, and she was also an accomplished painter. Ethel Merman died in 1984, leaving a will stipulating that her personal effects were to be sold. Benay Venuta bought back her portrait of Ethel as Momma Rose in Gypsy and donated it to the Museum of the City of New York.

Dick Vosburgh

Venuta Rose Crooke (Benay Venuta), singer, actress: born San Francisco 27 January 1911; married three times (two daughters); died 1 September 1995.